In the 2015 U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report released last week, Malaysia was upgraded from the lowest level of Tier 3 to Tier 2. The move has been criticized by rights groups, with Human Rights Watch calling it a diplomatic reward for Malaysia's role alongside the U.S. in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement -- a key policy for the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.
Kerry stressed Thursday that the upgrade was solely based on improvements in anti-human trafficking efforts by the administration of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
"Let me be crystal clear. I was the person who approved this and I did not have any conversation with [U.S.] administration prior to the process. The decision was based solely on the recommendations of my team," he said at a regional summit in Kuala Lumpur.
Kerry said he had noted Malaysia's intensive efforts to combat human trafficking in 2014 through measures such as passing new laws, increasing investigations and starting a victim protection pilot project.
"Malaysia has passed additional legislation in 2014. They consulted with civil society, drafted amendments to anti-trafficking law in order to allow the country's flawed victim protection regime to change," he told reporters. "The revision was made without any regard to other considerations."
He added that Malaysia would be given ample time to enhance investigations and prosecutions against human trafficking before next year’s TIP report.
"The law was just passed in Malaysia. So we must provide time for actions," Kerry stressed. "The country has ongoing investigations and prosecutions but it is still not enough."
He said that during a meeting Wednesday, he had sought commitment from Razak, who had in turn assured him. Kerry warned that the ranking could be adjusted next year if further efforts were not seen.
Kerry, however, added that Malaysia still has a "long way to go" despite the upgrade, as the move did not mean a "gold seal of approval" from Washington.
He said he had also discussed with Razak the potential negotiations wrap-up on the trade pact, as well as the fight against extremism.
Referring to Malaysia’s imprisoned opposition leader, Kerry added, "I also asked on the state of freedom of speech in Malaysia and the condition of Anwar Ibrahim."
The trade pact is being negotiated between 12 countries -- the United States, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Malaysia, Chile, Singapore, Peru, Vietnam, New Zealand and Brunei -- which represent more than 40 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.
Malaysia is set to present the final agreement draft alongside a cost-benefit analysis to parliament, which will deliberate and vote on whether the country will participate in the pact.
The trade deal is expected to open up a market populated by 800 million people with a gross domestic product worth $27.5 trillion to Malaysian companies.
In Malaysia, the meteoric emergence of movements against the pact has battered efforts to justify the agreement's benefit to the general public as well as to the country's economy.